The underdogs ruled the first leg of Major League Soccer’s playoffs. Not powerfully or even always well, but every lower-seeded team picked up a result at the very least. One big-picture similarity between the four games obviates any real need to write game-by-game analyses: nearly every contest turned on the inability of the Top Dogs to score on the road. Some teams came close while others looked as it they could play for three weeks before they’d score, but they all suffered from that same bug.
Technical difficulties with MLSlive.tv kept me from viewing all four games – I missed FC Dallas edging the Houston Dynamo, even if I saw Dwayne DeRosario shank a certain equalizer – but caught the other three more or less uninterrupted. While I don’t we’re looking at a situation in which none of the top seeds get out alive, I’m feeling pretty confident that at least one of them won’t. Who is the question that needs answering – and this is no small question with dining on regional delicacies versus drowning in fortified wine riding on the answer.
Fortunately, I’m doing pretty well in the Who Ate All the Cupcakes/Center Holds It Playoff Pick Duel. Team Cupcakes was good enough to embed the current standings in their sidebar. I’m not savvy enough to do that, but will replicate their table below:
Points after Matchday One
El Güero: 4
Nice as sharing the top spot feels, now comes the pressure of staying up there. Given the way the first leg shook out, the temptation to approach the next round of picks like a multiple-choice exam is a strong one – e.g. what’s your gut telling you, son? Then again, we live in days when “gut-check decisions” suffer by comparison with decisions made on the level of world events, which justifies a more pain-staking analytical approach. So, time to get cracking…
In the most general of terms, three of the top-seeded teams face a second leg in which they need to get the whole goal-scoring thing right at least once; only the New England Revolution can coast into the conference finals on goalless fumes, something they could very well do. After watching three of these games, I’m having trouble seeing at least one of these teams doing that which must be done (e.g. score a goal…just one freaking goal): Chivas USA. Also, judging by the highlights for Houston v. FC Dallas, the Dynamo still seems mired in one of their offensive funks. Then again, what home-field advantage doesn’t repair may yet be salvaged by the odd defensive shocker – and, Chicago aside, all the underdog teams possess the “talent” for handing over one of those, if not several.
The first leg opened last week as the second leg will this: with DC United taking on the Chicago Fire. Since the first game played out to expectation – well, by and large at least – calling the second leg gets a little trickier. DC did fine, generally, against a tight and stingy Chicago side. DC’s greatest problems came with alarming breakdowns at the back, but, for a solid majority of the game, they passed well up to Chicago’s defensive third and dictated the rhythm. As well as Chicago did with keeping DC’s offense in front of them – damned well, by my reckoning – I can’t see them surviving an additional 90 minutes of relentless pressure. To wrap up this series, the Fire needs to keep the ball for longer spells without repeatedly coughing it up in the back. So, can they do this? I’m working on it…
As for New England v. Red Bull, few goalless draws feel as fitting as the game these two teams foisted on an unwary public this past Saturday. I can recall only one gasp-inducing save – Matt Reis on Francis “Grandpa” Doe – but I might have lost another couple due to the occasional bout with “the nods.” On the plus side for Red Bull, they can still steal the series with just one goal, a real possibility opened up by a rare, solid defensive display. In truth, it could be the Revs who have the bigger problems on the goal-scoring front. Wells Thompson doesn’t give them much on the right, so, unless Andy Dorman is out with leprosy, Revs’ coach Steve Nicol really ought to consider playing him in his old central role; the Ralston Experiment -e.g. playing Ralston in the middle – yielded close to nothing, which argues in favor of a status quo ante September.
Then again, a Ralston/Altidore duel could result in the same kind of stalemate that Khano Smith v. Dane Richards produced on New York’s right (a great match-up that one, one of the most intriguing in the entire post-season). In all horrible, horrible honesty, I see this series going one of two: a New England win off an early goal or penalty kicks following a second goalless 90. Sigh.
Of the three first-leg matches I caught, none surprised me quite like Chivas’ visit to Kansas City, a game that the latter won. Call me crazy, but I thought KC looked pretty good – and on both sides of the ball. Chivas kept it tight at the back, of course, and the whiff of good fortune attended KC’s goal, but KC did surprisingly well on defense. As much as was made about the players Chivas had missing (Ante Razov and Maykel Galindo), their final ball was so consistently lacking it hardly seems it mattered; the quality of the crosses, in particular, was such that it would have taken Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to reach them. On the plus side for Chivas, they still have the talent and rhythm to find those openings. And, if I were Preki, I’d strongly consider starting Jon Cunliffe over Laurent Merlin – or, better still, he should start them both. That 4-5-1 didn’t do much for the Goats. With KC looking as good as anyone, though, the Goats need to get more than one thing right at the Home Depot Center – and I’m not sure they have that in them.
Left out of the above rambling is, of course, the shocking possibility that Dallas could make it past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the invention of the Internet (no, not literally…jesus). At the same time, I think the picks for the first leg says a lot about how likely interested observers believe that is – not one of the six of us picked a Dallas win.
Those are just a handful of the angles I’m inspecting ahead of making my picks for the second leg. So…am I ready to roll them out? I’m working on it…maybe later today…maybe tomorrow. Maybe it won’t be till I see whether or not Steve Nicol will shake things up in New England, or whether Preki will go back to a more offensive set-up for the home leg against KC. Maybe it’ll take injury reports…or maybe I’ll just listen to the Delphic rumblings in my belly and post what they tell me.